By Forrest Carr, RTDNA Contributor
Recently a small-market TV station in Idaho aired a pair of news promos arguing for small government and against the influence of "outsiders" trying to influence the state's health care policies. The spots furrowed some brows, to say the least, forcing the station to withdraw the ads. The GM, while conceding that the promos needed "adjustment," told the Boise Weekly that the spots were intended to support the station's "viewer advocacy news philosophy."
Supporting one side or another in a political fight is not what mainstream journalism in America is supposed to be about. And it's certainly not what Viewer Advocacy is about.
The confusion is perhaps understandable, even predictable. TV news is a fad-driven industry. In its flavor-of-the-month environment, strategies and news philosophies tend to come and go, sometimes rather quickly, and old ones evolve. What was new and exciting yesterday is routine the next day, looks a bit different next week, and is unrecognizable next month.
When we began using the term "Viewer Advocacy" nearly fifteen years ago, my colleagues and I at KGUN9-TV in Tucson had just set forth the philosophy in our somewhat experimental "Viewers' Bill of Rights" – what was then a ground-breaking document that not only specified our promises to our viewers, but provided a way for them to hold us to our word. The strategy took off like a rocket. Viewers responded with accolades and with ratings. When anything works in TV news, you can bet it's going to get emulated – and this concept was no exception. Trade journalists wrote about it. Some news consultants began blogging about it and pushing it to their clients around the country. And the idea spread.
So what is it, exactly?
At its heart, Viewer Advocacy is simply good old-fashioned watchdog journalism. It's also a commitment to help the "little guy" – the normal, everyday Joe Sixpacks and Ethel Iceteas who live in our communities – engage with the powerful, in support of democracy. Viewer Advocacy guards residents' interests by making it harder for big government and big business to blow them off. It advocates their right to be heard, saying in effect, "We know you sometimes get the bureaucratic runaround. But we have a trumpet in the form of a TV transmitter. We'll use it to help you blow down those brick walls and get to the answers." And, importantly, Viewer Advocacy provides a promise for the station to hold itself accountable to the community by establishing a dialogue about its coverage decisions. Fifteen years ago, the public engagement component of the philosophy was probably a bit ahead of its time. But in this age of social media – well, you can run from viewer feedback, but you can't hide. In the old days no one had to know about a complainy, whiny nastygram you'd just received from a viewer via snail mail – you could file it and forget it. Today the comment goes up on Facebook or Twitter and might even make the mainstream news – as happened in the Boise case. Newsrooms wanting to remain relevant must respond and engage. To its credit, the Boise station did not run for cover, as so many do. It faced this issue head on and took corrective action.
Here's what Viewer Advocacy is not: it's not a promise to advocate any party's or any viewer's particular opinion or viewpoint. The station, using its editorial judgment, may decide that a community question needs an answer, or that a particular viewer has a good story or issue that deserves a response. Having made that judgment, the station's commitment is to uncover the facts – not to help the viewer "beat city hall" or whatever else the viewer may want. Sometimes, in the face of bureaucratic stiff-arming, the process of seeking answers may itself become the story, temporarily. But getting the answers is always the ultimate goal. Public answers often lead to public action, and that's fine, as long as the newsroom doesn't have a predetermined outcome in mind. All the traditional standards and requirements of ethical journalism – fair play, stone cold accuracy, and objective reporting methods – are still in play.
So what does Viewer Advocacy look like on air? When I was a news director in Florida, a suspect died at the hands of sheriff's deputies. The initial statement was that the deputies had chased the guy into a drainage canal after a "routine traffic stop," and that when the suspect came back to the shore, a struggle ensued, the officers deployed a Taser, and the suspect died. The stated facts didn't add up. And then the medical examiner refused to give us the preliminary autopsy report. We then hit the air with aggressive coverage challenging the official secrecy. Our station refused to let the story drop, finding new angles to explore multiple times a week. Soon we were airing reports with a graphic containing the word "Stonewalling" and giving a day count. We were relentless – I think we were up to Stonewalling Day 220 or so before the sheriff finally divulged the report. As it turned out, the suspect had been tased from several feet away while swimming, and had drowned immediately. Prosecutors declined to take the case – in part because the deputies had been trained, and believed, that Tasers were non-lethal even when used in water. But at least the facts were now on the table.
Why did officials drag their feet and keep the public in the dark for so many months? Why do you think? The sheriff's office admitted to our station that it had used the time in part to seek other medical opinions, hoping to hear that the suspect had died from some cause other than drowning. In other words, the delay was simply about public relations, and the natural desire to avoid a black eye for as long as possible. One has to wonder what might have happened in this case had our station not been so persistent. Meanwhile, no further cases of unarmed suspects being deliberately zapped with 5,000 volts of electricity while doing the Australian crawl have made the news. Perhaps 220 days of aggressive, in-your-face public inquiry made an impression.
During the entire controversy our station received a flood of emails from viewers, many of whom were critical of our efforts (the more vocal among the public tend to be very supportive of law enforcement). We published more than one column on our website excerpting those comments and responding to them in detail. In explaining our actions, we frequently referenced the coverage principles set forth in our Viewer's Bill of Rights, and stated that our purpose was not to prove the officers guilty of anything or to pursue any other preconceived notion, but simply to get to the facts, which we felt had been withheld inappropriately. Some viewers bought it. Some didn't. But many let us know they respected us for responding to their feedback. This story, and many like it, corresponded to a period of time where our station's prime time newscast, in fairly short order, rose from a distant #3 in the ratings to #1.
In summary: What Viewer Advocacy does not do is to support any party's or anyone's particular point of view. What it does do is to fight for the right of everyday people to be heard, and to get answers from the powerful, in support of a free and enlightened society. And, realizing that journalists are among the powerful who must be held accountable, the philosophy commits to engaging in a dialogue with the community about the coverage choices the station makes.
TV news being what it is, there certainly is a marketing component to Viewer Advocacy. News spots tend to focus on the process of fighting for the "little guy" and getting answers from those who'd prefer to keep the public in the dark. And there is nothing wrong with that kind of marketing, provided it's sincere. With local TV news on the ropes today, what future does it have if not in rock-solid, aggressive, ethical, hyperlocal watchdog journalism, well executed and well promoted?
Done right, that's exactly what Viewer Advocacy is all about.
Forrest Carr has worked as a television news director in Arizona, New Mexico and Florida, and as an ethics fellow at the Poynter Institute. He can be reached at forrestcarr99 at gmail dot com